Why Princeton’s Civil War Memorial Should Identify Soldiers’ Allegiances

In the foyer of Nassau Hall, Princeton University’s oldest building, there are memorials to the alumni who died in America’s various wars. One panel commemorates the dead of the Civil War. 70 names are inscribed on this panel; 36 Confederates and 34 Yankees, in no particular order. The wall is about 75 feet from the president’s office.

When the memorial was dedicated in 1919, University President John Grier Hibben, a member of the Class of 1882, said “the names shall be placed alphabetically, and no one shall know on which side these young men fought,”(Mudd Library Blog). Princeton does not have full records for all of its alumni who fought in the Civil War, but the memorial is not representative of the breakdown. More alumni fought and died for the Confederacy than fought for the Union but exact documentation for all alumni isn’t known.

As the University community debates whether to rename buildings or to remove representations that honor people whose reprehensible legacies have been revealed, it’s important to remember that this isn’t the Princeton’s first attempt to alter how we remember the past. Throughout its history, the University has repressed some parts of history while discussing others. It is not easy talking about mistakes and wicked actions, but it is necessary. Institutions and their leaders mute memories that are incongruent with the current political atmosphere. They attempt to portray their history in a forgiving light. Yet, it is better to be upfront and honest than to pretend the past was sin-free.

During the 32-hour sit-in in President Eisgruber’s office, students protested in solidarity in the vestibule in Nassau Hall and outside the building. At one point, the protesters divided in two on each side of the hall. One side chanted “No justice!” and the other side chanted back, “No peace!” I snapped a picture of a mixed group of students standing under the Civil War memorial as they protested, thinking of the significance that picture holds. 150 years after the Civil War, African Americans were standing as students in Nassau Hall, and weren’t just standing—they were protesting. And they were protesting in front of the names of men who died fighting to keep them enslaved.

With this picture in hand, I went to Seeley G. Mudd library to look at the war records of the alumni whose names grace Nassau Hall’s walls. Princeton has 70 records for the names on the wall. Everyone included on the wall fought in some capacity, though some were chaplains or doctors. Some also served in organizations that supported the North or the South but were not officially part of the Union or the Confederate armies. Many records had no indication of where soldiers were born or when exactly they died. But there was no doubt that every soldier from Princeton was white.

Former University President Hibben’s quote regarding the order of Civil War dead in Nassau hall reflects a deeply repressed and shameful history at Princeton.

Princeton has long been known as  “the southern Ivy,” discussed in films of Princeton. Its role surrounding slavery and oppressed minorities is well documented. The University enrolled more students from below the Mason-Dixon line than any other college north of the line until the Civil War. And during the war, when Princeton students served in both the Union and Confederate armies, many Southern students also left in protest to what they perceived as a hostile student body. Princeton was, in fact, solidly in support of the Union, southern though it may have been. Still, Princeton Alumni Weekly published an article titled “Princeton in the Confederacy’s Service.”

Granted, most Princeton students did support the Union. However, because a greater proportion of Princeton students hailed from the South than other Northern schools, the campus wasn’t united. The Pumping Incident of 1861, where three pro-Union students held Confederacy-supporter Francis Dubois, Jr., class of 1863, under a water pump in response to his outspoken Confederate support, is indicative of the sentiment at the time, (Box 406 in Seeley Mudd Library). Union support was strong enough that there was an exodus of Southern students, dramatically shrinking the class size. Most southern students were the sons of rich planters, compelling them to fight for the confederacy to defend Southern wealth, stored in the bodies of African American slaves. Indeed, a Princeton supportive of the Union still saw revenue from Southern plantations paying for tuition.

Change here is not fast. Diversity at Princeton was nonexistent during the antebellum period. Compared to schools such as Harvard and Yale, who graduated their first African American students in 1870 and 1874 respectively, Princeton graduated its first student in 1947, more than two generations later. Moreover, Harvard’s civil war memorial doesn’t include the names of those who died for the Confederacy.

If we wish to be honest with ourselves, we must not obscure the sordid parts of Princeton’s history regarding race, gender and religion. We should not inscribe the names of alumni who died in the Civil War without noting for which side they fought. We should know the full truth. For a better future, we must assess the tragedies and the victories as parts of the University’s complete history. The current on-campus debates demonstrate that it is time to address past sins and create the University experience and education the oppressed have always deserved.

As an elite university, Princeton has an obligation to teach its students not just its own history, but also how the University shaped American history—both the good and the bad. This requires concerted effort from administrators and the board of trustees to design an institution that truly adheres to the principles of a liberal arts education and to the principles of serving our nation and all nations. We can only lead the movement against oppression if we start by acknowledging the past.

One Comment

  1. Scot R. Fugger says:

    Are you advocating waterboarding, so long as it is performed on Southerners??
    Didn’t Lincoln state, “…With malice toward none, with charity for all…”?
    Finally, like it or not, young men serve in war the nation they live in, whether they concur with all of its policies or not. I’m sure most of you opposed the Iraq war; do these officers deserve an asterisk next to their name too?

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